The Negative Impact of Gossip in the Workplace

The Negative Impact of Gossip in the Workplace

Have you ever walked past the breakroom or water cooler while at work and noticed a small group of employees speaking in low, hushed tones? There’s a good chance that these folks might be engaging in workplace gossip.

Gossip doesn’t just take place in the office – for example, traveling salespeople who rarely see other company employees often depend on any tidbit of gossip they can pick up via phone, email, or the occasional personal contact to maintain a connection to what’s happening within the organization.

While gossip may appear harmless on the surface, it can be quite destructive, especially for the person who serves as its unwitting target. When you consider that, according to one study, gossip is up to 2.7 times more likely to be negative than positive, it’s easy to see how damaging it can be. And negative chatter tends to spread quickly and can infiltrate the entire organization.

How to Identify Gossip When You Hear It

So, how can you tell if that muffled conversation coming from the other side of the cubicle wall is potentially dangerous gossip and not just some harmless chitchat? Gossip exhibits one or more of the following characteristics:

  • The conversationalists seem to be taking pleasure at a misfortune suffered by another employee
  • The conversation is taking on a negative tone or appears to be perpetuating conflict
  • You would be uncomfortable telling what you’ve heard to the person being discussed by the individuals
  • You’re hearing unsubstantiated rumors about an employee’s job status

What Are the Harmful Effects of Gossip?

As gossip spreads, which it inevitably does, it can have numerous detrimental effects on the workplace culture including:

  • Erosion of trust: Trust is essential to creating a positive, productive work environment. Negative gossip erodes trust. Those who engage in the practice are likely to wonder if the others in the group are also gossiping about them behind their back. And it’s likely that the person who is its target will find out about it and will probably never be able to trust his or her colleagues again.
  • Low morale: Excessive gossiping creates a backstabbing environment that can become an unbearable place to work. Low morale leads to higher turnover rates which can place the organization at a competitive disadvantage.
  • Hindering teamwork: Gossip can be detrimental in work situations that require collaboration. When workers discover they are the target of gossip, they are less inclined to want to cooperate with their colleagues who are perpetuating the negative talk. This typically creates a toxic work environment where employees are more concerned about the disruptive actions of their coworkers than getting the job done.
  • Litigation: When gossip turns malicious, the individual on the receiving end may view it as a form of harassment. If he or she attempts to seek a remedy by reporting it to a supervisor or via the organization’s reporting hotline and does not obtain satisfactory results, the next step might be pursuing legal action. A lawsuit that becomes public can become a reputational nightmare for the organization.
  • Disciplinary action: Gossip doesn’t always involve personal attacks waged against others; it can also entail the disclosure of sensitive or proprietary information to individuals who should not have access to it, especially competitors. This can result in a violation of company policy that may lead to disciplinary action, including termination.

What You Can Do to Avoid Getting Caught Up in Gossip

There are several actions you can take to prevent getting caught up in destructive workplace gossip:

  • Change the subject: If you find yourself in a conversation that is heading in a negative direction, tactfully change the subject. Start talking about the ballgame or movie you watched the night before or ask about everyone’s plans for the weekend. If you can’t move the topic to another track, politely excuse yourself and tell everyone you need to get back to work.
  • Say something positive: You can deflect negative gossip by making a positive statement about the person being attacked. For example, mention a time when the person did a favor for another team member or took up some of the slack when the department was shorthanded.
  • Address the lead perpetrator: A group of gossipers typically has a “ringleader” who initiates the negative conversations and encourages others to join in. Try talking to this individual in a private setting and calmly cite specific examples of how his or her behavior is disrupting the work environment.
  • Talk to the boss: If it appears that the gossip is getting out of hand, you may need to present the situation to your supervisor. Most bosses want to know about circumstances that are negatively impacting team morale and productivity and will take appropriate steps to rectify the situation – while safeguarding your anonymity.

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